Journalism - and life - very much happens outside of the capital. That was the message from Matthew Barraclough, head of BBC Local News Partnerships (LNP), speaking at Newsrewired (6 March 2019).
While Westminster is responsible for the laws that govern us, Barraclough said it is stories with proximity and impact which are at the heart of the BBC’s LNP mission statement. For him, local news stories are "the foundation of the news ecosystem."
He said that LNP is one of the most prominent efforts to increase coverage of local stories to regional titles and break out of the 'London bubble.’
Since being rolled out in September 2017, 102 organisations have signed up as local news partners, accounting for more than 850 regional titles. Through its Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS), one of its three pillars, more than 150 reporters have been hired under the scheme to report on local democratic bodies, such as councils, NHS trusts, crime commissions and fire authorities.
But it is not a one-way street: the local stories generated by the LDRS are also informing the national agenda. Barraclough looked to recent coverage of government fracking, and how the BBC were able to turn this issue from local news into a national story.
One of the recent stories that the scheme generated from covering local authorities, is the exclusive report on the high volume of taxi licenses being issued to drivers with criminal records, sometimes for serious and violent offences.
“In the UK licenses to drive taxis are issued by councils. In one Scottish council area half of the new licenses were given to people with criminal records and of those half had criminal records for violent offences," Barraclough explained.
"What if we could spot patterns and start to see trends that indicate a wider issue?"
He also talked about the recent release by the Department of Education of the number of vacancies in the children’s social work department.
“Because the BBC had access to this enormous stream of stories we were able to illustrate it much more effectively with examples from across England. People can now not only see the overall picture but also dive into how it is appropriate and relevant to the area where they live.
"This was news to us at the BBC, but it wasn’t news in areas where it was happening," he continued.
"This is a great opportunity to connect with our audiences’ lives wherever they are in the UK and the challenge is to pay attention to and act on this new source of information."
According to Barraclough, breaking out of this London bubble is less of a geographical issue and more a question of the attitude in the newsrooms.
“A bubble happens when a load of journalists get together in a big city and start to look inwards and stop looking outwards,” he added.
As an example, Barraclough mentioned the cab-hailing app Uber, saying that most people living in small towns across the UK cannot use this service; the concept of booking a taxi via an app is completely alien to them. Yet news about Uber often makes the front page story because journalists in London are so used to it it became an integral part of their lives.
Barraclough concluded that the beauty of the scheme is that while it offers a much-need lifeline, it has left the equally critical chase for the scoop between journalists fair game.